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Life

The Women’s Gym Where We All Look Like Ninjas

What kickboxing with hijab- and niqab-wearing aunties taught me about my own brand of Muslim feminism.

niqab-wearing boxers
Illustration by Jade Purple Brown

Arriving late, breathless, with a heightened heart rate and sweat already dripping from your face is probably not such a bad thing when you’re going to a new exercise class. But my hands and legs failed to catch up to the mostly synchronous movements of the rest of the ladies in the airy room, a fact slightly embarrassing to admit when you consider that I was probably the youngest one there — the oldest woman was almost half a century my senior.

After 40 minutes of kickboxing into the air, without any music except for the rhythmic counting of our instructress and the occasional whoop exploding unbidden from a pumped member of the class, we stopped exercising, but the experience of attending a local exercise class for the first time was far from over. Even though I had lived in a little suburb of Johannesburg all my life, I had never before participated in any activities involving ladies from my community, having been buried under billable hours and corporate law for much of the previous four years. Taking a break from legal practice, I jumped headlong into new experiences, trying to make up for lost time.

As ladies wiped glowing faces, a few walked over and introduced themselves. A 60-year-old auntie asked me the usual auntie questions: How old are you, are you married? How many children, where do you live? Something only an “auntie” would do immediately upon meeting a total stranger. Ah, Indian culture is both nosy and sweetly quirky. Anyone older than you is always an auntie, even if you’ve never met before.

Apart from the barrage of questions, I noticed almost every lady putting on a long black abaya over her colorful gym clothes, hijabs being wrapped expertly in a flash. And more than half the class also wore the full face covering, the niqab (also referred to as a purdah), our instructress among them. Knowing the sheer strength of these ladies’ kicks and punches, I felt like I had entered some sort of ladies-only dojo, and I wondered whether the studio was a place reserved for more serious, conservative women. But the conversation soon turned to how sore our arms would be the next day (and how that would affect our ability to roll rotis), and I relaxed.

The class met four times a week: kickboxing, pilates, step, and yoga ball, with optional aqua-aerobic classes in the summer. For the next year, I witnessed the camaraderie of a diverse group of ladies, ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s, brought together by our need for a private space in which to exercise and socialize freely.

When I first joined the class, I had barely started wearing the hijab, and I listened in amusement as one of the ladies jokingly (or not so jokingly) complimented another woman’s beauty, saying, “You’re so pretty, you should wear purdah.” The joker is actually a proper Islamic scholar, something I wouldn’t have guessed until she graciously offered to teach me Arabic — for free — when I expressed a vague interest.

At the time, I recall being surprised that this bunch of rowdy kickboxers were such conservative dressers. But I guess it goes to show that even within the Muslim community, we sometimes have incorrect stereotypes about each other, faulty ideas that a Pilates class can help to shatter. I always thought niqab wearers were more reserved, but when the cloaks came off and the workout began, I saw another side to these women who had always seemed guarded. It was likely my own preconceived notions at play and nothing that these ladies had actually ever done that shaped my first impressions.

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Getting to know the aunties meant that I was always up on local happenings, and there was always someone to call if I wanted cooking tips or needed to be reminded of when the next fundraising charity event would be held.

There’s camaraderie and comfort in being able to shed some layers and be more open within the walls of our kickboxing class. For conservative Muslim women, the ability to freely exercise in a group without trying to figure out how to cover up is a relief, and creating spaces where we can be ourselves without having to adjust our beliefs to an alien system of spandex leotards allows us to participate in just enough of contemporary culture without giving up any other aspect of our identities in the process. I was invited to jump across the body-confidence gap without feeling judged. We also took it easy over the fasting month, swapping heart-pumping aerobics for light-hearted strolls.

I learned to shed some of my social inhibitions as well, ones I didn’t even know that I was holding on to. I have always valued my private space — I’m an introvert who doesn’t like personal intrusions, physically or socially. But when the lady fixing my skewed hijab is part of a group of well-meaning aunties and not someone judgmentally trying to hint that I better get my newbie-hijab-game under control, I feel supported, not judged or chastened.

It can often be hard to reconcile the modern-feminist and conservative-traditionalist parts of my identity. But a kickboxing class on Tuesday mornings helped to dismantle my hesitancy in embracing Islamic feminism. It helped me to recognize how its own unique, intersectional, and evolving concept melds old ideas with new. I discovered that wearing a niqab doesn’t make you any less badass than a lady who competes in an Iron Man competition on the world stage. I mean, my instructress casually mentioned that she took exercise classes right up until the day before she delivered her (was it seventh?) baby.

A few years later, and I am much more comfortable in my hijab. I even manage to slip one on expertly once in a while, without so much as a peek in the mirror. I am not so different from the ladies I once thought of as so reserved. My hijab has added depth to my experience as a Muslim woman, and I find solidarity and comfort in it. I now have many veiled friends, some new, and some from my days of hijabi-kickboxing, but all unique. I can pick each one out of a crowd by her eyes alone.

I discovered a strength in traditional womanhood that I once took for granted. Not having to see sweaty guys at the gym also made it easier to stick to the class schedule, and the accountability of an older auntie who needed a ride home from class every day helped, too. While it’s great to have the choice to exercise wherever you want, for some of us, having the option to close our class to ladies only is what we needed to allow us the full opportunity to participate. Men have had boys’ clubs forever. I’m glad that I found a girls’ club that revealed the fuller spectrum of life behind the veil.

Aneesa Bodiat is a freelance writer from Johannesburg.